Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
At the end of "The Wind," we talk about how metaphors suddenly become very literal. The boat is another great example of this. Ros and Guil have a comic exchange on whether or not death could be a boat, but it takes on a more frightening tinge because the audience knows that the boat is taking them to their deaths.
ROS: We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
GUIL: No, no, no … Death is … not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat.
ROS: I've frequently not been on boats.
GUIL: No, no, no – what you've been is not on boats.
Underneath the comedy, there's something scary going on here. Words are taking on too much power. A metaphor or a figure of speech becomes a prophecy; it determines what will happen later on in the play. A turn of phrase becomes a cage in which the speaker becomes trapped. Zoom out for a moment. Stoppard is writing in the context of Shakespeare's Hamlet, which means in a very real sense that he and his characters are confined by Shakespeare's words. The fates of both Ros and Guil are written. Words really do determine the course of events.
Getting back to the boat specifically, why would Ros think that death is like a boat? We have a few ideas. One is that a boat journey is long, so long that it's possible to lose faith in your destination. You're just out at sea with no land in sight – not a bad metaphor for eternity. Another is that the course of a boat is fixed, and its direction is beyond the passenger's control. Ros and Guil are just along for the ride. What if that's what death is like? What if you still have a mind and you can still think, but you no longer have any freedom of action? It's a nightmare that is never directly voiced, but it simmers between the lines of Stoppard's text.
In contrast to Ros, Guil rather likes boats. We include his little speech here:
GUIL: Yes, I'm very fond of boats myself. I like the way they're – contained. You don't have to worry about which way to go, or whether to go at all – the question doesn't arise, because you're on a boat, aren't you? Boats are safe areas in the game of tag … the players will hold their positions until the music starts … I think I'll spend most of my life on boats. (3.55)
For Guil, the boat represents something like the perfect relationship between fate and free will. The boat has a direction and a destination, so there is some larger purpose at work that's bigger than Ros and Guil. At the same time, though, they're free to move about the deck, so to speak. They have some freedom, but not too much – not so much that events begin to feel arbitrary.
Now apply this idea to the play as a whole. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. These guys have to die. The boat is going to England, and the play is traveling towards the demise of our main characters. But just as Ros and Guil can move around the deck of the boat, so they can move around the stage during the course of the play's duration. The end point might be fixed, but the intermediary action is not.
Let's pull in a little something from the "Author's Note" to the early editions of the play. It might be a bit of a stretch, but we'll let you decide. In it, Stoppard writes,
This play-text is perhaps unusual in that it incorporates a good many speeches and passages enclosed in square brackets, and the material thus bracketed consists of optional cuts…I doubt that the same text has been performed in two different places anywhere in the world.
In some sense, what Stoppard is writing is just practical: a director can either shorten or lengthen the play based on his resources (the size of his cast or how much money he has). In another, though, he means that within the fixed action of the play, the director has some freedom to decide how the intermediary action will go. Everything is not completely pre-determined. It's this same idea of contained freedom: not too much, not too little. The floor of the stage is beginning to look more and more like the planks of a boat…